When Shae Brown runs her first marathon this weekend, she’ll do it alongside the father of the woman whose heart beats inside her chest.
Brown, 49, underwent a lifesaving transplant in 2013. A chemotherapy drug dubbed the Red Devil, used to treat the cancer that developed in the muscle surrounding her stomach as a teenager, had progressively weakened her heart.
By the time she was 36, she needed a pacemaker. Five years later, in 2012, doctors placed her on the heart transplant list. On May 20, 2013, she received the ultimate gift — the heart of a 24-year-old woman who’d grown up in Chicago, Alyssa Miller.
On Sunday, Alyssa’s 62-year-old dad, Fred Miller, will join Brown at the start of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. The two plan to run side by side for 26.2 miles to honor Alyssa and celebrate the new life she gave Brown.
Neither knows exactly what to expect. Miller thought his marathoning days were over, but when Brown mentioned she’d always wanted to run a marathon, he changed his mind. Running with her, he believes, will help keep a part of his daughter alive.
Brown, a dental hygienist who lives in Shiner, never thought she’d be strong enough to run a marathon. Unlike Miller, who has finished 10 long-distance races, she’d never run a race until after the transplant. Even now, she’s never attempted a long-distance race. Her heart wouldn’t let her.
Two weeks ago, as she enjoyed the luxury of a pre-marathon taper, when runners back off their training mileage and rest for the challenge ahead, Brown reflected on what this event will mean.
“It’s very sobering,” she said. “My heart hurts for (the Miller family), yet I hope they find some solace in knowing their daughter is living on, and I hope they can find some comfort in knowing that what she did by donating her organs really made a difference.”
The Millers didn’t know until doctors told them their daughter couldn’t be saved that she had registered as an organ donor. (The Millers have never shared with Brown how Alyssa died.)
Brown spent four weeks in the hospital after her transplant, and three months later she returned to work. She slowly began exercising again, taking advantage of a local physical therapy center’s offer to allow her to exercise there for free. At first, she just walked on a treadmill. With time, she grew stronger.
Nearly two years later, she decided to handwrite a letter to the family of the woman who’d given her new life. “I wanted to explain to them what caused my need for a new heart,” she said. She told them that if they were open to it, she would love to correspond. The Millers agreed.
“The letter from Shae was extremely touching and helpful for us,” Miller said by phone from Chicago recently. “It expressed such gratitude and respect. It was clear that we wanted and needed to meet her, without being able to put that into words, just as part of the grief thing.”
Fred and Barbara Miller, as well as Eva, Alyssa’s twin sister, wrote Brown back. They began emailing, then texting. Last year, the Miller family flew to Texas to meet Brown over a platter of Texas barbecue.
“Right before they were leaving, Eva asked me, ‘Do you think there’s any way we could listen to your heart?’ I had an old stethoscope I had dug out just in case,” Brown said. “I went upstairs and got it. Eva listened first, then Barbara. They offered to let Fred listen, but he didn’t think he could handle it.”
The families grew closer, and last September Brown and her husband flew to Chicago to visit the Millers again. At some point Brown, without realizing at the time that Miller was a veteran runner, told him she’d dreamed of one day completing a marathon.
“I said, ‘If you really want to do that, I’ll do it with you,’” Miller said.
At the time, Miller thought he’d run his last marathon. They’re long and draining. But Brown gave him a reason to run one more. He sent her registration information for the Chicago Marathon. He’d already secured an entry into the popular race through a lottery system. Brown signed up to run the race for a charity, choosing Team One Step, a nonprofit group that raises money to send children with cancer to summer camp.
“Back when I was battling cancer myself, they had a program that did the same thing. My sister and I went together for weeklong camp for cancer patients and their siblings,” she says.
The significance of that week stuck with her.
In the last few months, Brown and Miller have kept in close touch. Miller has shared training tips, advice and encouragement. Brown has been preparing on her own, without a training group. Other than a pair of 5K runs in the last two years, this will be her first big race.
“I’m just jumping, both feet, straight into a marathon,” she said.
That attitude impresses Miller, who says Alyssa was also athletic and determined.
“This is a huge step for (Brown), partly because her heart had been failing for such a long time,” he said. “I am amazed. It’s hot and hilly in Texas. She’s trained through all this and trained on her own.”
Two weeks ago, with Alyssa in mind, Brown modified a tattoo on her ankle that depicts a heart with wings. She added Alyssa’s initials and the date of the heart transplant.
“That’s kind of been my motto, because my new heart gave me wings to really be able to live life again,” Brown said. “That was the day I got new life, but the day she lost hers.”
As she runs on Sunday, Brown will be thinking about Alyssa. She worries a little that she’ll go too slow, but Miller says he doesn’t care. That’s not what this race is about.
“He might have to run so slow he falls down,” Brown said. “I feel like I run like a herd of turtles through peanut butter.”
Miller will be thinking of Alyssa, too, and sharing in the suffering and joy that a marathon brings alongside the person who still binds him to his daughter. He says he’ll run at a casual pace, finding a meditative rhythm where his mind can wander a little as the miles tick by.
“I think in this whole journey of grieving, there’s this very, very intense initial part and a yearning, hoping somehow this didn’t happen,” he said. “It’s been almost five years now. Now it’s the fear of forgetting, and so anything I can do to keep her front of mind is worth it.
“I’m glad Shae got me back into it. It keeps my daughter’s spirit alive.”